Agencies serving vulnerable populations adapt to the COVID-19 crisis

Barb Arland-Fye
Volunteer Bill Gallin serves a “to go” meal to a guest at Cafe on Vine in Davenport. The cafe, which serves the hungry, suspended serving meals inside the building because of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

Larry Christ of St. Vincent de Paul Food pantry in Burlington needed a few back-up volunteers March 13 but chose not to call one of them, an 80-something individual, because of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Older adults are at higher risk of getting very sick from the illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That fact presented a dilemma for the food pantry.

All of the volunteers are “well over 60 years old,” says Christ, who manages inventory and other responsibilities for the food pantry housed in the basement of St. John’s Catholic Church. Fortunately, “we got some helpers from the halfway house,” he said, referring to the Burlington Residential Correctional Facility. He wishes he could count on these younger workers on a regular basis. However, their availability depends on whether they have other jobs in the community to fill.

On March 16, St. Vincent de Paul changed its method for distributing food to pantry customers to address coronavirus precautions. The new method saves time, reduces the number of volunteers needed and provides more privacy for customers.


Prior to the change, pantry customers shopped inside the building Mondays through Fridays from 1-3 p.m. They chose the food items they wanted from the shelves. Now, during the same time frame, volunteers fill boxes with food and pantry customers drive around to the back of the church to pick up the groceries. “They stay in the cars and we bring the boxes out. We register them with three-ring binder. No one has to come inside the building. It works so well we can get the job done with half the volunteers,” Christ said. “Not only are the volunteers happy but the clients are happy about not having to get out of their car and come into the building. With school cancelled, it makes it easier for all of the family members to stay in the car.”

“It’s not something we want to do long-term. I think people prefer to choose items out of the pantry,” Christ said. However, it works well for the short-term. Although the pantry does not need as many volunteers now, he would be happy to hear from people interested in delivering food to people in need.

“Our parish (Divine Mercy Parish Burlington-West Burlington) announced Sunday, March 15, that people who are homebound can call the parish office or St. Vincent De Paul and someone will deliver food to their door.”

Take-out for the hungry

Café on Vine in Davenport has temporarily closed its dining room and prepares take-out breakfast and lunch for guests to pick up outside the back door of the kitchen. “Café on Vine wants to be available to anyone in need of a meal,” executive director Waunita Sullivan said. “However, due to a confined dining hall and the close proximity of human contact, the closure will decrease the exposure of COVID-19 to guests, volunteers and personnel.”

Beginning March 16, volunteers began handing out the “to-go” meals to guests and will continue to do so until further notice. Some of the guests that chilly afternoon chose to sit at the picnic tables outside the café to eat their meals of a meat dish, vegetables and potatoes. As they ate, other guests approached the kitchen door where Sullivan asked, “Water, milk or juice?” Each one waited just a couple minutes before volunteer Bill Gallin appeared at the door to hand out a plastic bag holding a container with a warm lunch. Meal pick-up is Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7:45 a.m. and 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

On Saturdays, meal pick up is noon to 1 p.m. and on Sundays from 4:30-5:30 p.m.

“For us, it’s not only the guests we are concerned about. Most of our volunteers are retired. I can’t expose them to the risk of coronavirus,” Sullivan said. Volunteers inside the café’s kitchen conducted their chores cheerfully. The guests also handled the “new normal.” “They’re wonderful, very grateful. Everybody understands a little flexibility is needed,” Gallin said.

McAnthony Window, a ministry of St. Anthony Parish in Davenport, will also provide take-out meals (9-11 a.m. Monday-Friday) and has closed its sit-down eating area (the Annex), said John Cooper, the parish’s pastoral associate.

“McAnthony Window will be open and serving food. Patrons can sit at the picnic tables available outside,” he said. “We will continue to provide needed toiletries and clothes for patrons who ask for them. We will continue to supply bus tokens from our office window. We will be monitoring every day to see what new needs might emerge among our patrons as this health concern continues. And, we will try to respond as best we can while keeping the safety of both our patrons and volunteers in mind.”

Social distancing in shelters

Humility Homes and Services Inc., (HHSI) shelter in Davenport has been at or near capacity of 70 persons per night and the Winter Emergency Shelter that HHSI operates in Davenport averages around 60 persons per night. Most of them sleep in bunks at the HHSI shelter, but about 20 sleep on the floors. In the Winter Emergency Shelter, the women sleep in bunks but the men sleep on mats on the floor. “We are making sure individuals are sleeping as far apart as possible and asking participants to practice social distancing,” said Ashley Velez, executive director of HHSI.

Extra cleaning and sanitizing are also underway at HHSI as is the case in programs, agencies and entities throughout the diocese and the nation. “We are following the guidance of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the CDC when making decisions regarding how we have responded to the coronavirus,” Velez said. “Unfortunately, for us, we have already had some of the protocols in place as our staff and participants have experienced influenza A and influenza B and pneumonia in higher numbers this year. For that reason, we had increased the amount of cleaning we were doing already and sending more staff home in an attempt to curb illness in the shelter.”

“We did take more measures though including having non-essential staff working from home while meeting the needs of participants in our supportive housing and emergency shelter. “All staff are providing supportive services to those in our housing services via phone or by the community social practice of standing 6 feet away from participants when visiting the home,” Velez said. “All of our program staff are housed in our emergency shelter because we wanted to limit the number of individuals coming into the building as much as possible. Our phones are still being staffed 24/7 at the shelter.” The outreach team and all service coordinators “will be able to respond to client needs, we are just trying to protect them as much as possible by following precautions set out by local authorities, CDC and HUD.”

HHSI has limited access to the shelter to its participants of HHSI and King’s Harvest (location of the Winter Emergency Shelter). HHSI’s administrative office has been closed to the public, which includes volunteers. No material donations are being accepted. HHSI needs cleaning supplies for the shelter and participants and monetary donations to assist with its work.

In response to a question, Velez said the coronavirus crisis would not result in the Winter Emergency Shelter remaining open longer this season. “The shelter will close on time. Part of this is due to the services being provided and plans in place for those staying related to housing. We also have seen that, on average, participants at the Winter Emergency Shelter are only staying one to three nights.” The majority of these individuals are resolving their housing situation. “We have been successful in housing individuals or moving them into our year-round shelter in order to provide continued services and a bit longer amount of stay.” From Dec. 1 through March 13, HHSI served 196 individuals at the HHSI shelter and 346 at the Winter Emergency Shelter.

For the staff of HHSI, the coronavirus crisis “has made us appreciate the work we do more and see that our work is far from done,” Velez said. “Everyone always deserves a place to call home, however, in situations such as this, it is harder to follow the exact guidelines released by the CDC due to the structure of our shelter and the number of individuals we serve. We have been able to do almost all of the recommendations, but it puts increased pressure on our staff. Our staff has been amazing and are putting participants’ needs first.”

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